Since 70 million people in the U.S. have a criminal record, it makes sense that employers conduct criminal background checks so they can make informed decisions about applicants. The problem is that many myths abound regarding criminal background checks, so we decided to round up some of the biggest offenders and bust them for good.
Myth #1: All criminal records are available through online databases, so the information is easy to obtain..
Reality check: Criminal records are disseminated throughout over 3,200 county court jurisdictions in the United States and its territories, and only a third of those are available online. In other words, two thirds of criminal records reside in paper repositories in the U.S. Conducting a thorough criminal background check requires manual labor to search through paper records, which takes time.
Myth #2: Fingerprinting is the key to accessing criminal records.
Reality check: Many people believe if you conduct a search based on someone's fingerprints, the fingerprints will go to the FBI, and this will unlock the person's criminal records. It doesn't work that way (except maybe in the movies). Not to mention that you can't legally fingerprint everyone who walks through your door. Many jurisdictions only permit you to fingerprint job applicants for certain occupations in which a criminal history background check is authorized or required under state or local law. An example: if the job requires dealing with a vulnerable population, fingerprinting might be applicable.
Myth #3: All criminal background checks are the same. That's why you should only consider price point when choosing a vendor.
Reality check: criminal background checks are not created equal, and here's where the adage "you get what you pay for" comes into play. A cheap criminal report will provide basic results—and it could very well miss relevant information. A thorough search costs more because it takes more time and manual labor (see the reality check paragraph in Myth #1 above).
If you look only at price, it's easy to think, "I'll just go with the cheaper one." But that cheaper check won't be thorough—it won't give you much (if any) good information.
When comparing providers of criminal background checks, make sure you're comparing apples to apples. Consider what the record check is going to cover. A quality criminal background check should, at the very least, consider aliases (like a maiden name) and where the person currently lives (and, ideally, has lived). Then, the background check provider should conduct criminal county searches in those jurisdictions. (Note: it's worth noting that the majority of crimes are committed and prosecuted at the local level.)
That's the simplified answer. Read on for a more detailed example that demonstrates the difference between a basic (cheap) check and a thorough check.
At Good Egg, here's our approach to criminal record checks. The first thing we do is ensure the job applicant has received the appropriate disclosures and authorizations to conduct the search. After we receive the applicant’s permission, we run an address history locator (“SSN Trace”) using the applicant's first name, last name, social security number, and birthdate to discover alias names (like a maiden name) and where the applicant currently lives and has lived.
Let's say the applicant has an alias or a maiden name in addition to their current legal name. We will run those names against a national criminal database. Now you might be thinking, "There's a national criminal database? Wouldn't that be enough?" Unfortunately, no.
Why? Well, there are several reasons.
- Multiple nationwide criminal databases exist that aggregate county court records
- Not all counties report information to these databases
- Common names can return dozens of results that must be carefully reviewed and validated by a trained researcher
For the sake of our example, let's say we do a search against the national criminal database and discover a criminal conviction in New Mexico that appears to be associated with the applicant, although the address history does not show that the applicant has lived in New Mexico.
Using the output of the SSN Trace, we'll also consider the local jurisdictions where the applicant currently lives and has lived within the past seven years.
So let's say the applicant currently lives in Worcester County in Massachusetts and has lived in San Francisco County in California and Las Vegas County in Nevada. We're going to search the legal name and the maiden name in all of those counties.
And because we found the possible record from New Mexico in the national criminal database, we're going to physically search that county in New Mexico for verification that the record was accurate.
As you can see, conducting a thorough criminal background check is part art, part science, and much more involved than cheap vendors would have you believe.
Some vendors, especially those offering cheap checks, might say, "Oh, we're not going to worry about the maiden name, or we're only going to look in the current county, even though your candidate may have only lived there for one year."
That's why it's easy to get fooled by price. The cheaper check won't be thorough enough.
Myth #4: A criminal background check is simply part of the HR administrative process. There's not much value to them.
Reality check: A quality criminal background check reduces the risk of hiring a bad employee. According to a 2017 CareerBuilder survey:
Avoiding bad hires through a criminal background check is going to save your company a lot of money and aggravation—not to mention potential lawsuits and brand damage that could result from ongoing criminal activity (for example, if your employee steals your customers' credit card numbers).
You use criminal background checks to inform your hiring decisions. If you're considering a job applicant for an online customer service position, it might not matter as much to discover the applicant was convicted of a DUI three years ago. But if you were considering the same applicant for a delivery position, that information would likely matter very much.
Myth #5: A pre-employment criminal background check is enough. There's no need for ongoing monitoring or re-screening.
Reality check: We live in the gig economy, where people often have multiple jobs. They might work 32 hours for you, but drive for Uber on the weekends, for example. If your employee commits a crime while working at a second job, wouldn’t you want to know about it?
Criminal behavior isn't static. You might hire someone today who has a clean record, but six months from now, your employee has a run-in with the law. The employee now has a criminal record. Sure, not all crimes result in a prison sentence or are deemed violent, and not all crimes will negatively impact that employee’s position or performance with your company. But wouldn't you still want to know about them? Not to mention, your company could be at risk of a negligent retention lawsuit, and that’s another blog on its own.
Bottom line: A one-and-done criminal background screen at the time of hire is not enough to ensure a safe and reliable workplace over the long term.
Myth #7: Don't worry about all the documentation around disclosures and authorizations—it's just an administrative task and isn't that important.
Reality check: You can't run criminal background checks on people without their written permission and without giving the appropriate disclosures. Period. And HOW you ask people for this permission is equally important. Your organization could be facing stiff penalties for non-compliance.
Keep in mind that many states and localities have different notices that you must present to job applicants. Depending on where you're hiring people and where your applicants live, you may have to present individuals applying for the same position with different documents to get their permission to run the criminal background check. And guess what? This verbiage is constantly changing at the state and local level. So if you don't invest in reviewing and updating these documents at least annually, you're likely running afoul of the law and you could cost your organization big bucks in terms of violations, lawsuits, and enforcement actions.
Do not underestimate the risks associated with providing the wrong or inadequate disclosures and authorizations to job applicants and employees. Ideally, you should work with a vendor who can keep you compliant.
At Good Egg, our system will dynamically present the right disclosures and authorizations based upon that job applicant’s circumstances. We are proactive and alert you whenever there's a change at the state or federal level.
Myth #8: Fast equals good.
Reality check: There's a lot of pressure to turn around background checks quickly—you don't want to lose a great candidate, after all. We understand that, but the reality is that a thorough and useful screening can take time.
So, again—don't be fooled by cheap criminal background checks or claims of super-quick turnarounds. Sure, you might save a few bucks, and you might get the criminal background check in record time, but what's the point if the results aren't complete or worse—they're downright sloppy?
Your organization deserves better.
Bonus Truth: Ban-the-box legislation increases the necessity for criminal background checks.
Currently, 33 states and over 150 cities and counties have ban-the-box legislation, and for good reason. This article from Fast Company sums it up well: "While criminal records may be uncovered in background checks, ensuring that people have a clean slate when applying initially allows them to present themselves to employers as qualified workers, not just a checked box on an application."
Banning the box creates a level playing field for job applicants—and this is a good thing. But it's still prudent for employers to conduct criminal checks on job candidates after extending a conditional employment offer for all the reasons noted above. The results along with what you learn will help you make a decision you can feel confident in.
Myths, Busted—Help Spread the Word!
We hope the above information clarified any questions you might have had about criminal background checks. Help bust the myths for good by sharing what you learned with colleagues and others in the HR industry.